Where pitchforks and torches were once the signature weapons of angry mobs, today we see the maddened masses taking up mouses (mice?) and keyboards to send their messages. Cloaked with potential anonymity and blazing with vigilante morale, just one internet commentator can stir up a frenzy that would put bloodthirsty sharks to shame. Such a communal tirade is certainly the reoccurring PR nightmare for any company. Unfortunately such situations are sometimes unavoidable. Thus it behooves any organization facing such a mob to make like a fragile package (It must be Italian!) and “handle with care.”
The latest company to be so crucified was the restaurant Applebee’s after they fired a server for posting a picture of a customer’s receipt online. In obvious contempt for the mandatory gratuity charge, a patron, identified as Pastor Alois Bell, wrote on the receipt, “I give God 10% Why do you get 18?” An Applebees waitress, Chelsea Welch, found the note funny and posted it online. The picture went viral and soon the short-fused pastor found herself like biblical Jonah, bitterly calling down judgment upon her foes. If the Pastor prayed for fire to consume the waitress, then her wish was nearly met; Welch was promptly fired.
The swift gavel of public objection came thundering down almost immediately as Applebee’s inbox filled with thousands upon thousands of angry protests. The restaurant and the pastor suddenly became the King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of the internet guillotine machine. Facebook groups named after Chelsea Welch cried for her reinstatement and for the denouncement of Pastor Bell.
Now we get to “handling with care” part. Until now, Applebee’s had not done anything too terribly wrong.The server had indeed crossed the line of appropriate employee conduct and the easily-offended pastor did ask for her to be terminated (along with practically everyone else on shift that night). The blunder was in the handling of the criticism that left them drowning in a vortex of virtual venom.
Shortly after the incident Applebee’s posted their lament for the situation on facebook. Yet whoever operated the Applebee’s facebook page was obviously unprepared for the subsequent onslaught. More comments poured in and though they tried to respond to the comments, they were simply incapable of responding adequately. NBC News quoted Travis Mayfield, director of digital social strategy for Fisher Interactive Network, as saying, “It seemed as if they didn’t know what they were doing. It came across as snarky, maybe even angry.”
Finally, unable to keep up with the comments, they did the unthinkable: they released another post and briefly hid the first with all of its cutting comments. To the mob, it seemed like they were deleting posts. Though the post was made visible shortly thereafter, the damage had been done. The mob had apparently been silenced. The critics had been censored.
The right to fair comment and criticism runs deep in the fundamental fabric of a free people. Barring few exceptions, critics should be allowed to say what they want to say, even if it hurts. Censorship is a surefire way to deepen any wound a company has inflicted. Spiteful retaliation is social media suicide. Comments should be responded to in the most personable and sensitive of manners. At all costs a company must avoid appearing robotic or condescending. Breaking any of these internet commandments is grounds for mob assemblage, one that a business simply cannot afford.